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ROBERT HILBURN

A Gang With Eloquence : Beneath Soothing Melodies, Band Sings of Lost Dreams

November 14, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

It figures that a band naming itself after a classy film like "Citizen Kane"--rather than something more topical 'n' teen such as "Top Gun"--would be a band with something to say.

And sure enough, England's Kane Gang--whose "Motortown" is moving up the U.S. singles chart--is a band that writes about such issues as unemployment, lost dreams and soul-wrenching disillusionment.

But the music is often so soothing that the message could easily go by unnoticed. Instead of the strident assault associated with the protest music of the punk era, the Kane Gang leans toward a more mellow, yet seductive, blend of Motown pop sensibilities and jazzy Steely Dan shading.

It's easy to picture someone listening to the soothing strains of "Motortown" and thinking the song is about a comforting ride in the countryside. Even some of the opening lyrics seem to support that interpretation:

Everybody's glory bound

Got it made in Motortown

Spread the news all around

Near the end of the record, however, the line about weeds growing high near the old steelyard should be clue enough that there is a darker edge to the song.

This juxtaposition may lead some pop fans to wonder just what is going on, but this subtle pop protest is part of a growing movement in England that involves other highly regarded groups such as the Housemartins, whose new "The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death" album on Elektra Records offers peppier musical textures (Motown-meets-Squeeze) and more biting lyrics.

"I think protest is slightly too strong a word for what we do," the Kane Gang's Martin Brammer said during a visit here this week, "although some of our songs do deal with things that you might not be very happy about. But we wanted to avoid the group of people that we've seen, particularly in Britain, who base their music on little more than shouting and sloganeering.

"We wanted to write songs about things we cared about, but put those lyrics with strong melodies so that people could listen to them without feeling like they are . . . attending some kind of political (rally)."

Like most musicians who grew up in England during the last decade, Brammer, 30, and the other members of the Gang (Peter Woods and David Brewis) were influenced by the late '70s punk movement. His group even tried its hand at writing a few "punk classics," Brammer said good-naturedly.

"The Sex Pistols were also just exhilarating from a blunt, shock aspect," he said. "Songs like 'God Save the Queen' so upset the British establishment that you couldn't help but feel inspired by that outrageousness. But things like that burn bright and die quickly. We wanted to move in a different direction."

In songs like "What Time Is It?" and "King Street Rain," the Kane Gang writes about frustrations in an almost generic way that makes it possible for a listener to interpret the song as being about either personal relationships or social conditions.

"Most of the people who talk to us about 'What Time Is It?' think it is a love song, something about personal relationships," Brammer said. "But we meant it to be something more universal, in the style of great soul songs like 'People Get Ready,' where you can use the emotion to fit whatever problem you have, whether you are out of a job or feel your rights are being violated."

Brammer said "Motortown," part of the group's "Miracle" album on Capitol Records, is a somewhat satiric look at the reaction in his hometown of Newcastle to the building of a Nissan plant in the area.

"After Nissan announced it was going to build an auto plant somewhere in Britain, there was great competition among different deprived areas for over a year, each saying the plant ought to be built in their area because it it was more deprived than the others . . . and therefore deserved the jobs.

"When Nissan finally decided to build the plant near Newcastle, there was this tremendous media celebration . . . as if it were a great victory and that it was the end of bad times for our (region). It was so out of proportion . . . like everyone would be able to live happily ever after."

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: The Who's Pete Townshend, in the Dec. 10 issue of Rolling Stone, speaking about U2 (which will be in concert Tuesday and Wednesday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum): "I feel afraid for them, just the way I felt afraid for Springsteen. I wanted to tell him, 'Bruce, be careful. They'll destroy you. They're not really listening to you.' And that's the thing I worry most about U2. I want them to be enormous. . . . The Edge is a giant. Rooted and remaining as they do in Ireland, it will produce their most apocalyptic vision. They can bring a unique view to the world.

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